Southwest Florida's New Philanthropy

Two leading innovators—Sarah Owen and Eileen Connolly-Keesler—tell how it will affect us all.

BY August 31, 2016


If you were to read a county’s roadmap toward its future—you know, the kind of document that detailed what it needed to do to attract and retain a workforce, protect the environment, boost the economy—which entity do you think would oversee such a plan?

a) the county commission
b) the economic development council
c) a nonprofit community foundation

OK, what about this one: If you were to discover that college students were dropping out between their junior and senior years or find out that just 27 percent of the region’s adults had a degree or workforce certificate, what organization would you expect to head a postsecondary education push?

a) a nonprofit community foundation
b) a public college or university
c) the school board

If in both cases you picked the least likely answer, “community foundation,” you are right. The days of these organizations merely amassing assets and doling out money are done. Instead, our local community foundations have morphed into civic change-agents, partnering with everyone from government officials to business leaders to educators to nonprofit directors to solve vexing community issues or spur initiatives that will enhance Southwest Florida’s viability.

Call it “the new philanthropy.”

These foundations have changed the role of donors from check-writers to collaborating problem-solvers; empowered nonprofit clients to help design the programs meant to benefit them; brought together cross-sections of the community—people who might not normally rub elbows—in order to spur conversation, collaboration and creative thinking. And they’ve stopped patting themselves on the back when they tally up how much money they’ve raised and given out, instead focusing on lives changed and outcomes met.

To understand these trends, we sat down with two of the region’s gurus: Sarah Owen, CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, and Eileen Connolly-Keesler, CEO of the Community Foundation of Collier County. Each is leading two relatively young organizations (40 and 31 years old, respectively) into full-blown adulthood by expanding the roles and prominence of their organizations.

“Philanthropy can’t just be over on the sidelines anymore. Philanthropy has to be at the table. There are philanthropic solutions that impact everything else,” Owen says.

The changes have been many; we’ll offer a few examples to highlight what’s happening and how residents—regardless of their incomes—can get involved.


Pushing Equity and Empowerment

That community blueprint mentioned at the start of this story? That’s Lee County’s Sustainability Plan, a 73-page document initiated by the county commission and then handed over to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation with the recognition that (a) government, especially post-recession government, can’t do it all, and (b) the foundation is in a unique position to bring together key players from multiple sectors onto neutral ground.

The plan is basically everything county leaders want to do to make people clamor to come to Southwest Florida and then loathe to leave: environmental protection, vibrant culture, robust economy, safe neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets, quality schools, a well-trained workforce, accessible health care. Yes, it’s good here now, but the plan challenges the community to make itself better. It emphasizes analytical thinking and cautions against short-term fixes that could create long-term problems. It shows how initiatives and contributions both big and small can contribute to the plan’s overarching goals (good news for people with small pockets) and provides ways of measuring the impact of said initiatives and contributions.

“If you hear me say, ‘We are working diligently to make an impact on equity and empowerment,’ I’m not just giving you a sound bite,” says Owen, referring to one section of the sustainability plan. “I can point to exactly what it is we’re doing, and then I can get results and data from across the region, and then I know what’s working. Listen, if you’re gonna give time and money and talent to something, you want to know it makes a difference.”

She’s hoping this plan eventually becomes a model for other counties.


Targeting Scholarships, More Degrees

Connolly-Keesler had been at a conference when she heard startling data about the reams of Florida college students who were dropping out and defaulting on student loans, most of which were less than $10,000—a pittance, really, when you consider how easy it is to rack up six digits worth of educational debt.

She investigated and discovered that students were finding scholarships to cover the first two years of college but were on their own after that. They were taking out loans to cover the expenses and then getting cold feet.

“These are first-generation kids here,” Connolly-Keesler says. “The parents start seeing loan stuff coming in and they get extremely nervous. They don’t understand that $10,000 or $20,000 in the long run is going to pay off.”

Enter philanthropy as problem-solver.

Connolly-Keesler and her staff are working with other partners, including Champions for Learning, to create a scholarship database for local sources of support (which, in Naples, are sizable). The goal: to create a simplified, user-friendly, targeted approach to finding assistance (Google “college scholarships,” and you’ll get 120 million hits—a daunting result for anyone, never mind low-income kids with limited Internet access and parents who haven’t been through the application process).

The new scholarship database, the Collier County Scholarship Connector, is expected to go live in October. Students create a profile and the site generates a report showing all of the local scholarships they are eligible for, along with links to other pertinent college application information.

“It’s really going to, I think, revolutionize the process for our kids,” Connolly-Keesler says. The database is structured in a way that will allow other counties to re-create it.

This effort feeds into a broader goal. Owen, whose foundation is regional, launched the FutureMakers Coalition in 2015 to increase the number of Southwest Floridians with a degree or postsecondary certificate from 27 percent to 40 percent in the next 10 years. The coalition spans Southwest Florida’s five counties and includes K-12 educators, college administrators, workforce development specialists, businesspeople, technical school representatives, elected leaders and others with an interest in our workforce’s caliber. The coalition won the financial and advisory support of the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to postsecondary education.

“Philanthropy in the past was a lot of one-on-one conversations between a nonprofit and a donor,” says Owen. “Now it’s this idea of bringing people around the table.”


Help Wanted: Problem-solvers

A small group of people—an accountant, a chamber of commerce director, a real estate specialist, a hotelier, a Habitat for Humanity executive and an affordable housing expert—gathered at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation office one July morning to talk about one of the region’s most vexing problems: affordable housing.

Owen was there, but she had ceded the floor to John Talmage, the economist and housing expert who had worked everywhere from New York City to Miami to New Orleans before settling here. They weren’t trying to come up with solutions; they were instead determining how they should begin the conversation, whom they should invite to the table and what basic data they needed to get going. 

“We haven’t quantified the problem,” Talmage said. “How much housing do we need in Lee County?”

Aside from data, the region lacked something else, too: the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to chase federal and state housing dollars and incentive programs. You can’t tap these resources if your community isn’t set up to receive public dollars and partner with private developers.

The conversation turned to getting Lee County “deal-ready.”

“I feel like there are all these pieces floating and I’m trying to figure out how to pull them all down,” Owen said. That was the role her group—the philanthropy—would play. Fundraising and grant-making—if that’s what the housing problem needed—would come much, much later.


Reef  Partnership

The concept of public-private partnerships isn’t exactly new, but it’s not exactly common in Southwest Florida.

“We’re kind of tip-toeing in,” says Connolly-Keesler.

Or, in the case of Collier County’s artificial reef project, plunging.

The reef was the brainchild of attorney and fisherman Peter Flood, who teamed up with Diane Flagg, the county’s economic task force chair, to see if the region could qualify for BP settlement money in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Artificial reefs spur the development of habitat for undersea life, which in turn create new fishing ground for anglers and explorations for divers.

To qualify, the duo needed the governments of Naples and Marco Island and Collier County to jointly apply. They did and won $1.3 million from BP’s Gulf Tourism Seafood Promotional Fund.

But winning the money depended on the community’s willingness to contribute. Enter the foundation. It rallied donors to come up with the $1.7 million needed to complete the project.

“We held the dollars,” Connolly-Keesler explains. “For each (government entity) to hold it themselves is more difficult. Plus, donors get nervous about handing any money to a county government. Is it going to be earmarked for what it is supposed to be earmarked for? This is a beautiful role the Community Foundation can play.”

Flood says the foundation’s involvement was integral.

“Eileen was the one on the forefront; she was really out there pushing it, she and her staff,” he says.

The foundation offered naming rights for six reefs, along with other opportunities to lend support.

“Philanthropy can plan a role in economic development, which people never saw,” Connolly-Keesler says. The reefs, once mature, are expected to generate some $30 million annually in economic activity. “Philanthropy can take on blighted areas of your community and use philanthropic and grant dollars to rebuild that. Philanthropy can help with incubator programs to start small businesses that can affect your community. Philanthropy can play a huge role—it’s just that people never thought it could; they never explored that option.”


Donors Help Decide

Back in the day, Southwest Florida Community Foundation administrators used to give donors such as representatives of the Women’s Legacy Fund a rundown of the community’s emerging needs. They, in turn, would take that information back to the full group for a vote on which endeavor to fund.

That was the old philanthropy. The new philanthropy works like this:

1. A researcher goes out and asks residents about the needs and opportunities of their neighborhoods. Sticking with the Women’s Legacy Fund example, a researcher would visit women in areas targeted for intervention. “We’re blown away by the things they said,” Owen says. One message: We love programs—but we don’t have the transportation to get to them.

2. The researcher reveals eight or 10 emerging needs; a small group of fund representatives narrows that list to three.

3. The full Women’s Legacy Fund debates those three big issues and picks one to concentrate on.

4. The foundation solicits grants from nonprofits that are in a position to address the chosen issue. The grant proposals must include, by the way, strategies for meeting transportation needs, seeking input from communities, and determining the outcomes of those projects.  

5. The top grant proposals are entered into a “compassionate Shark Tank,” giving Legacy Fund members a chance to interact directly with the nonprofit representatives.

6. The legacy fund members pick one proposal to fund.

“It is definitely giving us a voice in where the money is spent,” says Christina Harris Schwinn, an attorney and member of the Women’s Legacy Fund. In 2015, the group funded a project that helped immigrant women gain employment skills and self esteem. This year, they will tackle the question: Does the lack of affordable housing lead to poverty?

Harris Schwinn says the growing role of the donor in decision-making, along with those other changes, is spurring more women to give at higher levels.

“I think that is directly attributable to the change we made in how grants are awarded and in involving everybody,” she says.


Philanthropy for All

Connolly-Keesler likes to joke that she’s wearing a giant raincoat with multiple interior pockets, where she stores endless philanthropic options for would-be donors. Think philanthropy is reserved for the super-rich? Hardly.

“What do you want? I can sell you anything. Anything you want,” Connolly-Keesler says, chuckling and pretending to open her coat.

For some, that means combining forces. The Collier foundation is hosting “giving circles,” groups of people who pool their resources to make a greater impact and have greater say in how their money is used. Among them is the Women’s Giving Circle, started in 2012 by two Baltimore natives who’d been part of such a group in their home city and seen the benefit—to both those in need and to the benefactors themselves.

“The purpose of this, on the one hand, is to help disadvantaged women and families and on the other hand is to get ordinary women engaged in philanthropy in a very hands-on way,” says Sue Guben, one of the founders. Members pledge $1,100 a year. In just four years, the group has grown to 40 women, whose pooled resources have helped everyone from teen moms to widowed senior women to the wives of Alzheimer’s patients.

“We are learning about our community. We’re getting to meet amazing people who live in our community,” Guben says. Members are mostly retired and looking for a new sense of purpose. “I need to use my mind; I need to be involved in my community and make a difference. This has been a wonderful opportunity for women to get together and feel useful.”

Similarly, small contributions fueled the Collier foundation’s Give Where You Live campaign this year. The 24-hour campaign yielded $4 million for 40 nonprofits, with many of the pledges coming in at $25 or less. 

Owen held a similar campaign in order to establish an environment fund, in keeping with one of the key targets of the sustainability plan. Her organization invited donors to give as little as $10.

“Anybody can be a philanthropist. People can come together with small dollars and make a big impact,” Connolly-Keesler says.

Underscore that for small-business owners, too, who long to give back to the community but can’t always cut a big check.

“The future of work and the workforce is saying we want to see societal benefit in our work. We want purpose. This is a way businesses can engage in philanthropy in a whole new way,” Owen says.


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